During the recent election campaign, any significant attention to our place in the world and foreign policy was lost amongst the cacophony of discussion of the environment, climate change, the economy, broadband internet and Speedos.

Richard Wolcott in action:

With the exception of the boat people drama, both major parties seemed strangely silent on the topic of Australia’s interaction with the outside world. ‘Moving Australia Forward’ probably didn’t extend to dumping the entire country somewhere in the North Atlantic, but that’s about as much attention as it got.

Tony Abbott has voiced what many Australians feel is the truth – that we are part of the Anglosphere, due to our dominant culture and heritage. While we still have a lot to gain from these ‘old world’ ties, the fact is that they should be ‘old world’ for a reason: they’re part of the past, and much of our future will be tied in with the co-operation of our immediate neighbours in South East Asia and the South West Pacific.

Richard Woolcott is one of Australia’s longest serving diplomatic officials, and has worked with every prime minister since Sir Robert Menzies. He took the time to be interviewed and give his thoughts on Australia’s place in the world, the Australian mentality, and what a minority government will mean for our foreign relations.

What follows is an edited transcript.

Matt Smith (MS): Do you see Australia as being a member of the Asian community?

Richard Woolcott (RW): There’s no doubt that geographically, we are part of South East Asia and the South West Pacific. Some of our historical background is closely linked with the United Kingdom and I guess our major security alliance is with the United States, but essentially we are in this part of the world.

MS: What about for the Australian mentality? Do we still retain closer ties to the western world?

RW: I don’t think so. I was rather disappointed that during the election campaign to hear the leader of the opposition to refer to Australia as part of the Anglosphere. I assume what he meant was a lot of Australians are descendent from the anglo-celts from the British Isles. Increasingly, more and more Australia were born overseas and outside the British Isles or immigrated from Asia and parts of Europe, so our population is changing I think that Anglosphere goes really back, a hundred years.

MS: What did you think of the election campaign? Was foreign affairs given enough attention?

RW: I thought it was very disappointing. Foreign affairs was not given attention by either side, I would have thought that major issues such as the conflict in Afghanistan, the whole idea of our place in the world. Also the handling of issues like refugees and boat people, I think the way that was handled can send the wrong message because, in a sense, both sides of politics were seeking to exploit fears and it’s just nonsense to say that we’re threatened by an armada of boats invading us from the north. I would have liked to see some serious discussion about major foreign policy issues that show where Australia belongs in the world.

MS: As it stands now we’re going to have a minority government. Do you think that will change the way we approach the Asian Pacific Region?

RW: Unfortunately I think it will, a minority government is going to be a risk averse government. It’s not going to want to look at major projects, and that’s unfortunate. But I would hope whoever becomes Prime Minister and foreign minister, once the election is behind them, will have a slightly more constructive involvement with the countries of our region.

MS: How did you get started in diplomacy?

RW: Well I don’t really know, I started life as a journalist actually, like you. I had a travelling scholarship and when the money ran out I was in London. I got a job with what was then the Melbourne Herald London office and I spent some time working as a journalist in London. One of the things I did was to interview the senior External Affairs representative in London and after a while he asked me if I would be interested in applying to join the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

MS: It’s fair to say that your career has been quite integral to the direction of Australia’s foreign policy affairs. What direction have you tried to guide the country in?

RW: One of the successful aspects was the development of APEC. I think in other ways one has to try to work on straight within Australia itself, and try and influence Australian attitudes so that we would be better understood. In some extent because of the old White Australia Policy Australia’s on sort of a good behaviour bond in the region, and it’s very important that perceptions of racism and religious intolerance and don’t build up. Most Australians are great believers in a fair go and equality of opportunity. It would be a pity if these perceptions of Australia were tarnished by what is a small minority.

Richard Woolcott served as an ambassador to numerous Asian countries, to the United Nations, and as President of the United Nations Security Council for Australia’s term in 1985. He was the Secretary for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1988 to 1992, and helped establish the APEC forum. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1985, and a Companion of the Order in 1993.

Richard Woolcott spoke at La Trobe University as a guest of the Centre for Dialogue.

You can read more from Matt Smith at his blog at The End of the Spectrum.

Most commented


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    • Eric says:

      05:41am | 03/09/10

      The Anglosphere isn’t about ethnicity, as you seem to assume. It’s about a set of principles and customs and a common cultural heritage.

      We are very much a part of the Anglosphere, even those of us who have no British connections whatsoever. However, many people of a leftist bent want to deny this, and destroy this heritage, in a form of cultural suicide driven by false collective guilt.

    • Jon says:

      11:51am | 03/09/10

      Yes, the left have forgotten that they are an invention the Anglosphere. However their unending guilt they got from Christianity.

    • Adam says:

      01:29pm | 03/09/10

      That’s a bit dramatic, Eric.

      Culture is not a black and white magazine ad from the 50’s that you apparently use to obscure your view of the real world. Letting a few people in who don’t wear sunday dresses and mow their lawn in beige slacks isn’t quite cultural suicide.

      Here. Let me put on some Bing Crosby to soothe you before your afternoon nap.

    • Eric says:

      05:05pm | 03/09/10

      Adam, your use of silly stereotypes makes it obvious that you are the one being “dramatic”.

      If you have something serious to say, then please say it. But reciting outdated cultural clichés doesn’t get you anywhere.

    • T.Chong says:

      07:22am | 03/09/10

      Sir Les Patterson. ( the last of the Whitlam knights)

    • Les Pattinson (19th century name dispute) says:

      01:20pm | 03/09/10

      Now look here Chongo old son, Whitlam my arse, the bloke never bought me a beer, never saw him at Young & Jackson’s perving at Chloe, Maggie was keeping the bloke away from temptation, and christ, he must have thought she was Chloe. Me on the other hand, in the pursuit of ambassadorial endeavours of the Australian myth, have been busy as a Bagdad bricklayer, trying to promote the image of the Aussie shiela. I have to report I’ve been successful as you would imagine. ( Between you and me, I didn’t slip Pamela a length, she wouldn’t have said no in my opinion. I’m very gentle with women, I just slip it in and say walk slowly towards me). Every bloke has a root and runs a risk, it’s just a bit worse now, that’s all. I generally stick to Catholics and Australians unless I’m in Manila or Bangkok. So Eric, above, it’s not about ethnicity, ask Gareth. Oops, just spoiled my sartorial elegance, but dampness is not a bad thing eh fellas? Too late, just pissed myself.

    • James says:

      12:43pm | 03/09/10

      The notion that we have to tread carefully because of the White Australia Policy is absurd. Numerous Asian nations, including richer and more ageing ones like Japan and Korea, to this day have ethnically based immigration policies. The only Asia Pacific nation besides Australia and NZ to have a non discriminatory immigration policy is Singapore.

      Also, the idea that there is even an ‘Asian community’ is ridiculous. There are multiple conflicting alliances, interests and cultural clashes in play. There is no ‘Asian community’ for us to even join.

      People need to let go of this 1970s/1980s idea that we’re ‘an Asian partner in waiting’. Firstly, the vast majority of Australia(and NZ and the pacific islands) don’t want it. Secondly, we wouldn’t be accepted(beyond Japan and Singapore) even if we wanted to.

      Geography means next to nothing in 2010.  All we require is good relations and a healthy dose of political independence, not only from the US, but China as well.

    • Will says:

      02:00pm | 20/09/10

      I don’t understand why it has to be one or the other..? Black and white decisions seldom fit perfectly.
      Australia isn’t a replica of England or the US, nor could it ever be. It seems the turmoil occurs when people try. Australia is still a young country. Are we so unoriginal and narrow-minded a country that we cannot make up our own identity to be proud of?


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